Numbers are hard to come by in publishing. However, I have come across two indie authors who have put their numbers out for everyone to see, in the hope that their their experiences will help other indie authors succeed. Neither of the authors are at the extreme limits of either pole, success or failure, but they represent good examples of the common experience towards either of those poles.
Let’s start with Ron Vital. I’ve updated this post with a link to his 2022 blog post. He has a full time job and writes on the side. Ron has been an indie author since 2011. He writes fairy tale and adventure fantasy with female leads. To date I believe he has 14 works of fiction and 5 non-fiction books. Each year since 2013 (save for 2019) he has posted on his blog, his experiences in self-publishing during that year. You can find his 2022 blog post here: https://www.ronvitale.com/blog/2022/12/22/what-i-learned-about-indie-publishing-in-2022-full-sales-figures It includes links to his other year end reports, all of which are well worth reading since he is an author who has tried all the different strategies that have been proposed to sell books over the years – mailing lists, advertising, free promotions, perma-free first books, you name it. He goes over how each of them worked, or didn’t work for him. He also reports his sales numbers, which I have collected below.
However, here are the numbers he has reported;
2011 – sales $295 expenses $200 3 fiction book
2012 – sales $295 expenses $500 lost $205 4 fiction
2013 – sales $295 expenses $500 lost $205 4 fiction
2014 – sales $607 expenses $1,055 lost $448 6 fiction
2015 – sales $1,002 expenses $1,729 lost $727 8 fiction
2016 – sales $1,188 expenses $2,842 lost $1,654 9 fiction 1 non-fiction
2017 – sales $854 expenses $4,856 lost $4,002 10 fiction 2 non-fiction
2018 – sales $611 expenses $3,121 lost $2,510 12 fiction 2 non-fiction
2019 – sales $1,047 expenses $2,542 lost $1,495 13 fiction 2 non-fiction
2020 – sales $1,596 expenses $2,173 lost $577 13 fiction 4 non-fiction
2021 – sales $2,258 expenses $4,256 lost $1,998 14 fiction 5 non-fiction
To sum them up, he has lost $13,494 in 10 years of self publishing.
As a business, losing $13,494 in ten years is not the type of result you’d want to see. But that’s looking at the glass half empty. Looking at it half full, as he does, he would argue that he’s in it for the long term. He’s building his intellectual property and learning skills that are laying the groundwork for a long career. To put that loss in perspective, someone might be able to pick up a second hand pop-up camper for that amount – and spend several weekends a year using it – it’s matter of priorities.
If we look a little closer at his numbers for 2021, he gave away 24,819 books as perma-free first books in his various series, advertising them in Book Barbarian, Fussy Librarian, and Freebooksy. But even giving away these first books for free only resulted in 523 books sold at full price. Plus, in his early indie publishing years, he’s given away at least 30,000 copies of his books as well via various promotions.
Given all the effort he has put into his publishing venture, I have to say that it seems that the stories he wants to write are not the stories an economically viable group of Amazon readers want to read. There are readers for every type of book. But if you are writing to make money, you need to focus your efforts on bestselling genres, and write books that deliver what those readers expect. And then spend a ton of money promoting them.
Speaking of a ton of money, we now turn to the indie author of science fiction, space fantasy, and writing advice non-fiction, Chris Fox. Chris Fox has been a full time indie publisher since at last 2016. Since 2016 he has posted an annual video on YouTube showing his results and analyzing them. You can find all these year end videos here: https://www.youtube.com/c/ChrisFoxWrites/videos For most years, he reports his sales numbers plus his expense. From his gross sales he pays himself a salary, and charges his healthcare costs and various book related expenses, like editing, advertising, covers, taxes etc. against his gross income, with any balance going into savings or into future projects. Below are his gross sales numbers on Amazon – on which he sells exclusively.
2016 – $170,000 9 fiction 5 non-fiction books on writing and marketing books.
2017 – $180,050 14 fiction 6 non-fiction
2018 – $194,900 17 fiction 7 non-fiction
2019 – $354,620 20 fiction 8 non-fiction
2020 – $272,288 29 fiction 8 non-fiction
2021 – $189,978 35 fiction 8 non-fiction
To achieve and maintain this level of sales, Chris spends upwards of $20,000 a year on advertising. He has written books on how to advertise, as well as how to write 5,000 words a day, and on various other aspects of indie publishing. They are in fact, some of his best selling books. In addition to spending a great deal of money promoting his books, he spends a great deal of time writing and managing his sales – the 12 to 15 hours per day type of time. However, in the last two years he’s had a young child in the house and not only has had to cut back a little, but hasn’t had 8 hours of sleep since his son was born.
Long story short, this type of sales involves spending both a lot of money and a lot of time to build and maintain the business. And even so, you will note the decline in sales over the last two years. despite the fact that he released 15 new books in that period, as well as a number of boxed sets that I didn’t include in my book total numbers.
He has responded to this downturn like all businesses, by cutting expenses. He now does things that he used to farm out to others. He claims he’s doing better than ever, but, like Ron Vital, he’s a glass is half full sort of person, so I take that with a grain of salt.
In 2021 he started releasing to books in his 10 volume fantasy series, in which he writes longer books, but fewer of them. He spent something like $15,000 on the first book to launch this new series, and it hadn’t earned back that investment in March 2022. However he launched two sequels with almost no advertising, so that the series as a whole was in the black to the tune of some $8,000 plus, in March, with more sequels on the way.
However, what I think what we’re seeing here is what happens when you burnout your readers with too many books released in too short of time – which paradoxically you have to do in the fast lane of indie-publishing just to stay on the radar of the avid, book or two a week (or more) readers. Such a pace may well burn out authors as well. Indeed, Chris, in his 2021 report talks about cutting back to two, and perhaps even one book a year going forward, as well as the need to develop other income streams.
Pick your poison. Be careful what you wish for. Be happy with what you are doing.